Greek inspiration for China’s Terracotta Army?

The figures of the Chinese terracotta army of the third century BC were perhaps inspired by Greek sculpture.

Josho Brouwers

One of the most impressive tombs of the ancient world must almost certainly be the burial place of the Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. The actual mausoleum itself, which was constructed between 246 and 208 BC, is located under a roughly pyramid-shape mound approximately 76 metres in height and has not yet been excavated. Supposedly, the inside of the mausoleum contains buildings and rivers flowing with mercury, so it’s future excavation is something to look out for.

Buried close to the mausoleum is we now refer to as the Terracotta Army: a vast collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of China’s first emperor, interred in large pits to guard the ruler’s mausoleum in perpeptuity. Three pits are thought to contain more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry. Other pits included figures representing acrobats, officials, and musicians. Only a portion of the total number of figures have actually been excavated so far.

A few days ago, The Guardian’s website reported that archaeologists working at the site of the Terracotta Warriors believe that their Chinese creators were inspired by ancient Greek art and sculptures in particular. According to the newspaper, Lukas Nickel, chair of Asian art history in Vienna, has gone so far as to claim that “a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals.” The recovery of European DNA from sites close to the tomb of the first emperor might corroborate that supposition.

Of course, evidence for Greek influence in China wouldn’t be too strange. Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire is generally regarded as having spread Hellenic culture as far east as India, and it seems likely that, through trade, the ancient Chinese would have come into contact with Hellenistic kingdoms just a little further west.

Indeed, the Chinese came into contact with the Macedonians in the Fergana Valley, an important part of the North Silk Road that linked China to Parthia. After the conquests of Alexander the Great, Fergana became a part of the Seleucid kingdom and then the Greco-Bactrian kingdom. Bactria alongside Gandhara actually played an important part in the development of buddhist statues with Greek characteristics. The Chinese also seem to have fought a battle against a Hellenistic army at Fergana towards the end of the second century BC.

So we shouldn’t be too surprised that there were contact between the Hellenistic kingdoms and ancient China. One book that I’m reminded of because of this bit of news is The Penguin Encyclopedia of Classical Civilizations (1993), edited by Arthur Cotterell. Notably, this book doesn’t limit the term “classical” solely to Greco-Roman antiquity, but instead argues that it should include all of the “classical” cultures that flourished throughout the old world from about 550 BC to AD 600, including the empires of Persia, India, and China.

While an older title now, I would still recommend you check out this book, as it will undoubtedly broaden your horizons.